the past few years i have invested effort in making sure that i am not homeless during the winter. in some places winter is too cold to sleep outside without a sturdy well insulated shelter, or top of the line winter gear, which many of us cannot afford.
my first homeless winter was certainly a wake-up call. the challenge increases in late autumn when the rain season comes, one must do their best to stay dry in order to avoid hypothermia. here's a basic outline of how to be homeless in winter.
in most bigger towns and cities that experience winter, there is a shelter and meal program set up for the homeless, usually running from the month of November until March. there is a program in my town called Out of the Cold. seven churches host the Out of the Cold program, a different location each night. doors open at 6pm when dinner is served, each location having it's own regular meal. at one place it's always chili, at another bow-tie pasta and alfredo sauce, and one of the catholic churches always has roast beef and soup.
in recent years the Out of the Cold program has become crowded, especially for the overnight beds and mats. for the most part i would show up at dinnertime for the meal, stay long enough to get warmed up, and then head back out to the streets to find shelter for the evening. it's hard to sleep in a room full of sketchy people, always wondering when it's my turn to get ripped off.
it is absolutely crucial to find shelter from rain, snow and wind in the winter months. though i would dodge the free beds most nights, on the coldest nights i would stay wherever was warm, even if it meant a full night in a shelter.
if you are homeless and employed, taking the midnight shift during the winter is most beneficial. you can earn cash during the coldest hours of the day, and sleep during sunlight hours when the cold is not so deadly.
regardless, i ended up flipping my sleep schedule to sleep after the sun comes up, so that i was awake and wandering between 2 and 6 am, the coldest hours of the night. bank lobbies were decent in these hours, warm and dry and no people around to tell me to move along. i would hit the free coffee and breakfast at yet another church, then find somewhere cozy to take a nap all bundled up where no one could find me, like the seldom used stairwell at the north side of the parking garage downtown. finding an abandoned house or shed or hallway is a much better option than sleeping out in the open.
if you choose to sleep outside for most of the winter, you must stay warm and dry. once you become too cold to feel a limb or move yourself along, it's hard to recover. sleeping on the ground is guaranteed to suck all of your body heat away. it's best to find a foam mat or even cardboard to put down before you lay. find a place without any wind and where there is no snow drift accumulating or moisture.
if you have a tent for shelter, you can still camp in the winter if you play it safe. google winter camping for your area to find the best method. in places with lots of snow, you can dig a tent spot to help insulate from the wind, using the snow as a natural wind block. also tarps can be handy to create your own wind block when a natural one can't be found. you can even make a tent out of tarps and some rope hung between trees. a friend of mine set up a 3 season tent on a balcony, building a nest inside. it was his shelter all winter, aside from the nights when it would reach forty below.
dressing in layers is the best way to cope with the cold. it is not only important to keep your body heat, but also to know when to ventilate extra warmth to avoid sweating. sweat can turn to a chill very quickly, which can trigger hypothermia. if you dress in layers you can always adjust accordingly by simply removing a scarf or a coat when it gets warm.
there are three main layers to consider. your base layer closest to your skin, your insulating layer, and then your shell layer. long johns, thin synthetic materials or even pyjamas make a good base layer, but try to avoid cotton at all costs. most clothes are synthetic these days anyways, which wicks moisture much better than cotton.
for best results on the base layer, i always make sure to tuck the bottoms into the socks, the top into the pants and pull my sleeves into my gloves when i'm wearing them. this avoids cold drafts up your back or pant legs.
your insulation layer is best to be anything lofty, like fleece or knitted wool. this layer keeps your body heat against you in pockets, and helps with air circulation to spread your warmth evenly over your whole body. you do not want to dress in clothing too tight, where there is no space to hold your warmth. not too loose either so that your heat can easily escape.
your top layer, or shell layer is best to be waterproof and/or windproof. i had found a long rain trench coat one year that worked perfect as an outer layer, with some splash pants that i would pull the bottom cuffs over the tops of my boots. also very important, is a hat or head cover. having your head covered will make an enormous difference when trying to stay warm. i like to use a long scarf which wraps around my head and face, then tuck it down the front of my coat.
it is important for your gloves and boots not to be too tight. this will restrict the blood flow to your extremities and keep them cold. do not wear too many pairs of socks or gloves at once as this will create the same problem.
if you're in the position to do so, migration is always a good option to avoid the winter chill. besides, being a broke backpacker is much more eventful than being a street kid. having no ties could be your chance to get out and experience all that the world has to offer. now is a good time to check out resources like CouchSurfers or WWOOFing [as listed in my links], or any opportunity trading labour for shelter and food.
keep warm and stay safe!